liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
[personal profile] pretty_panther offered what might be a politically controversial prompt: Britain's foodbank crises. Your thoughts and opinions.

an endless queue of people in front of an entrance labelled 'food bank'

I am hesitant about filling this prompt. Partly because what am I doing posting about food banks as someone who's never troubled about whether I can afford food? (Sometimes I haven't been able to afford much else beyond food, sometimes I have had to budget quite carefully and cook everything myself from cheap raw ingredients, but I've never gone short of adequate calories or adequate nutrition for financial reasons.) And partly because I haven't really researched the issue in detail, I've just seen various outrage about it in all the usual places on the internet. If I just spout out my general outrage, perhaps I'll be saying something that all my nice liberalish friends agree with anyway. Or else perhaps I'll say something controversial which I then won't be able to defend very well. Still, it's in the spirit of the daily prompt meme that I write off-the-cuff about whatever you ask me about, regardless of whether I'm well informed or not.

As far as I'm concerned the staggering rise in the numbers of people relying on foodbanks to be able to eat over the last few years represents abject political failure. Sure, the economy is in trouble since the 2007 crash, and one can debate the pros and cons of austerity versus Keynesian government spending to combat recession. But at root, making sure everybody in the country has enough to eat should be the absolute baseline, any cuts to government spending should come after that basic minimum has been taken care of. Yes, that might mean cuts to things I care about like education, the environment etc. Still, any country that has any sort of functional economy at all should not be letting its citizens starve. Now, I recognize that's idealistic; there are some really intractable problems of extreme poverty. It may not be possible to invent a political intervention that completely solves long-term homelessness. But the most alarming thing about the food bank crisis is that it's no longer just homeless people and people in extreme crisis relying on food banks (and bad enough that there are so many more in those categories), but people with relatively stable lives including people in employment.

I consider this unforgivable political mismanagement. A government that enacts policies allowing people to starve doesn't deserve to be allowed to collect taxes at all, let alone pay salaries to MPs or invest public money in large-scale projects. It feels like some of the problem is, genuinely, economic problems. It's not entirely the fault of the current government that unemployment is rising and businesses are struggling and the raw cost of food is increasing. But some of it is bad policy. The minimum wage is a mess; it hasn't been increased to keep pace with the cost of living, and it's being badly undermined by the government encouraging loopholes such as zero-hours contracts and even worse, undercutting waged labour by forcing benefit recipients into unpaid workfare. I don't know which is worse, the fact that people are working and still not earning enough to eat properly, or the fact that so many people who can not obtain paid jobs are not receiving enough in benefits to be able to eat properly. It may be unavoidable to make some cuts to benefits, but cuts below the level where people have enough for basic necessities including food is just atrociously bad economic decision-making.

My impression is that there's an important secondary factor in the massive increase in dependence on food banks, which is that the whole benefits system is being run extremely ineffectively such that people are not receiving even the inadequate payments they are in theory entitled to, or not in a timely manner. It's bad enough the government deciding that the poorest and most vulnerable should receive less, but there are huge practical issues in people receiving even the lowered amounts. The level of administrative errors in the benefits system is utterly unacceptable. People are randomly getting their benefits stopped for no reason, and that means no money coming in for weeks, even months. Even if back payments are eventually made, which is by no means a certainty and requires the recipients to be willing and able to fight for their entitlements, that's no good, because getting several months in arrears doesn't allow you to buy food during the period when the money is delayed. People who have enough savings to tide them over probably aren't entitled to benefits in the first place.

Some of it is mistakes, and some is punitive sanctions. There is clear evidence, both anecdotal from people I know, and from people who actually study this on a larger scale, that sanctions are being applied inappropriately, depriving people who haven't actually done anything wrong. Even when people are in fact say, not making enough effort to look for jobs, or in fact give incorrect details of their financial situation, punishing them by making them starve for weeks or months is completely disproportionate. If benefits are the absolute minimum needed to live on, reducing benefits is an inappropriate punishment for any possible offence; even criminals in prison are entitled to adequate diets! If benefits have enough slack that fines can reasonably be applied, it needs to be done on a timescale that is affordable. Stopping payments altogether for more than one week is morally unacceptable; I could perhaps stomach asking people to repay part of their allowance at the rate of a few pounds per week for however long it takes, if the people are actually cheating the system. It seems completely topsy turvy anyway to prioritize punishing people suspected of cheating over dealing with the people making the payments committing such an unreasonably high level of the kind of errors which mean that people starve or lose their homes.

I suspect part of the issue is that the system is badly under-resourced, but I'm increasingly convinced by conspiracy theories of deliberate malice. There are rumours of targets for getting people off benefits, or for applying sanctions to a certain number of applicants. And a general attitude from the political classes that if you make applying for benefits miserable enough, people will somehow magically find some other source of income. They'll "get" jobs, as if decently paid jobs were just lying around on the street for anyone who could be bothered to pick them up. Or they'll find relatives or charities who can support them when the state is failing in its duty. My strong impression is that anyone who can survive without needing to draw benefits is already doing so; there are pretty convincing stats that a huge proportion of benefit entitlement goes unclaimed, dwarfing the amounts fraudulently claimed by people who are not entitled. Making people more miserable is completely ineffective, and a level of punishing people for not being sufficiently enterprising that goes as far as forcing them to rely on food banks to eat is inhumane.

Yes, some people are crap at budgeting and planning ahead, and some people are lazy. But the numbers of such people haven't increased at anything like the rate that the need for food banks has increased, so there has to be a systematic explanation. Also, I really do not accept that being crap at budgeting or lazy should result in starvation. Maybe it should result in not being able to afford lots of luxuries, I'm right wing enough to be sanguine about that. But not being able to afford to eat or to feed children who can't in fact be financially prudent in their own right, that is a huge moral problem for me.

Probably the best information I've come across about politically driven food poverty is Jack Monroe's blog A girl called Jack. (She also has really good, realistic low-budget recipes that don't assume you have a well-stocked, well-equipped kitchen or that you can afford to buy and cook in bulk to reduce the costs of individual meals, unlike a lot of the people pontificating about this stuff.) Me, I'm mostly just ranting; I'm sort of impotently wishing that I could find any party at all to vote for in 2015 that would do anything to address this issue of starving the unemployed, low-waged and disabled. And giving some of my regular, substantial charitable donations to the Trussell Trust rather than overseas aid / development charities like Kiva, as well as encouraging and taking part in collection drives for food to donate to food banks. But mostly I'm just angry and feel that the democratic system has failed our country.

[January Journal masterlist; there's still quite a few spaces so do feel free to add some more prompts even if you didn't get to it in December! Or indeed to make a second request if you're already in the list.]
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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